Who can challenge the NBA’s top contenders?

By DANIEL LANDY | November 30, 2017

The NBA season is already nearing the quarter mark, and the league’s expected hierarchy is, for the most part, shaping up as anticipated.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics are rolling behind the efforts of Kyrie Irving, while the Cleveland Cavaliers are beginning to gain some momentum and ascend the standings. Out West, the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are off to fast starts and look to once again be the Conference’s three elite teams.

While the aforementioned teams are already beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the league, there are several middle-of-the-road teams that could be particularly intriguing as the season moves forward.

Though their records are nothing spectacular, the following four teams have the potential to be “wild cards” down the road. Let’s examine these teams and determine their viability as legitimate contenders.

We begin in South Beach with the Miami Heat. The Heat was the NBA’s cream of the crop in the first half of the decade and is currently looking to write a new chapter in its history with a young, rejuvenated roster.

This team genuinely bears no resemblance to that of the Heat’s “Big 3” era; it goes nine-men deep, with each of those players making distinct but critical contributions to the team’s success. In the backcourt, point guard Goran Dragić and shooting guard Dion Waiters bring offensive firepower and keep the team competitive with their elite scoring abilities.

On the defensive side of the ball, third-year players Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow bring high levels of energy that are crucial in effectively shutting down opposing offenses. Down low, Hassan Whiteside is a strong interior scorer and one of the best rim protectors in the league.

Off the bench, big men James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk, guard Tyler Johnson and three-point sharpshooter Wayne Ellington all prove worthy when they are on the court.

While the Heat’s roster is deep, its fatal flaw may be its lack of a dominant superstar. This is not the old Miami team, where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could take down any opponent based on talent alone.

The current Heat team must be grittier and will require significant contributions up and down the roster to win on any given night. Miami will make some noise come playoff time, but their current makeup will make it difficult for the team to get past the likes of LeBron and Kyrie in a playoff setting.

Let’s move onto the Milwaukee Bucks, who, unlike the Heat, do not lack a superstar that can hang with the league’s best. In fact, in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have arguably the most intriguing and versatile young superstar in all of basketball.

The “Greek Freak,” now in his fifth year, continues to amaze with his ability to make significant improvements to his game each and every season. He is now the second-leading scorer in all of basketball and only trails LeBron and James Harden in Player Efficiency Rating.

Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is also solid, with Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and new acquisition Eric Bledsoe serving as strong compliments to the 22-year-old phenom.

With their current roster, the Bucks are primed to be one of the East’s best teams for years to come. While they are off to a mediocre start this season, expect them to improve as their young players gain more experience. An NBA Finals birth may be a stretch, but this Milwaukee team is definitely good enough to win its first playoff series since 2001 and could be a dark horse to reach the Conference finals.

Up next are the New Orleans Pelicans, quite possibly the most uniquely assembled team in the league. While the NBA is now predominantly focused on small ball, the Pelicans are trying to win by doing just the opposite. New Orleans has two of the league’s best big men in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and is using them to outsize their opponents.

While Davis and Cousins have been absolutely dominant so far this season, the team’s lack of depth may prevent us from seeing the full potential of this dynamic duo. Aside from Jrue Holiday, Davis and Cousins have received little support from the rest of the roster. As the team does not have sufficient assets to acquire more talent, it may be in their best interest to deal Cousins before his contract expires at the end of the season.

If the Pelicans do not see themselves as title contenders right now — which they are not in a historically deep and talented Western Conference — the experiment could come to an end before February’s trade deadline. However, if the roster were to remain as currently assembled, it would be very interesting to watch the Pelicans go up against the Conference’s elite-guard-and-wing-heavy teams in the playoffs.

Speaking of guard-and-wing-heavy teams, let’s look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, who may just be the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors. Although the Thunder are off to a bit of a slow start, this can largely be attributed to the team’s extensive offseason makeover. Offseason additions Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have joined reigning MVP Russell Westbrook to create a downright scary three-headed monster. Once these three All-Stars learn to coexist, they won’t be afraid of any of the other 29 teams in the league.

The team’s key to success is Westbrook. The Thunder will be in the best position to win if he is able to assert himself as the alpha dog. This strategy was exemplified in OKC’s dominant win over the Warriors on Nov. 22. Westbrook put up a 34-10-9 stat line, while Anthony added 22 points and George had a 20-point double-double.

If the team is able to find the most effective way to utilize Westbrook, Anthony and George, while also making sure that they are fresh for the playoffs, watch out Golden State!

Be sure to keep your eyes on these four teams throughout the season. While they may not have the track records of the league’s more established contenders, they are certainly capable of disrupting the status quo — something everyone is looking for.

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